UNCW Polar Physicist Till Wagner Leads Arctic Expedition to Study Sea Ice Melt

Monday, June 10, 2019

Till Wagner, assistant professor of physics and physical oceanography at UNCW, led an Arctic expedition to explore the relationship between the springtime sea ice melt and marine species that depend on the ocean for survival. 

“We are looking to understand how the springtime sea ice melt kickstarts the local ecosystem. The melting ice releases valuable nutrients that attract plankton and fish, and eventually larger predators like whales and polar bears,” Wagner said. “All these components are carefully interlinked and balanced, but our understanding of the system is still very much in its infancy." 

Melting sea ice is vital to allow plankton and other microorganisms that are the foundation of the ocean food chain to “bloom” in the spring, he explained. "The Arctic ocean between Svalbard and Greenland is one of the most dynamic and fertile seas in the world,” Wagner said. “The ice is important in that you need ice to have ice melt.” 

In the areas where there was sea ice, plankton was abundant. But areas of the ocean where ice was nonexistent were devoid of life, he said. “If you don’t have nutrient-rich fresh water, nothing can grow.” 

Participants from UNCW were Wagner; Heather Koopman, chair of the Department of Biology and Marine Biology; post-doctoral student Hillary Glandon; graduate student Andrew Castagno; undergraduate students Elizabeth Bailey and Conner Lester; David Wells, a Center for Marine Science technician; and Yvonne Marsan, research laboratory manager for the Department of Physics and Physical Oceanography. Biological oceanographer Mattias Cape from the University of Washington-Seattle Campus was also part of the team. 

Greenpeace provided a ship and logistical support for the expedition. 

Faculty, staff and student research is a key component of UNCW’s Strategic Plan. “I think it is fair to say that the expedition was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the UNCW undergraduate and graduate students who joined us,” Wagner said. 

Wagner’s expedition will be featured in a special research section of the Fall/Winter UNCW Magazine. 

Read the team’s blog here

-- Tricia Vance 

Physics major Conner Lester working with scientific instrument on an ice sheet.
UNCW physics major Conner Lester works with instrumentation on the ice sheet that served as a base for the research.
Photo ©Denis Sinyakov/Greenpeace.


UNCW carved into an ice sheet.
The team left behind a UNCW calling card on the ice.